Lost language: how Macau gambled away its past

The number of people who speak Patu a blend of Portuguese and Cantonese is down to just 50 as the casino-dominated Las Vegas of the east continues to expand. Can they keep their native tongue alive?

Nowadays, nobody speaks much Patu. Only the old people speak Patu, declares 102-year-old Aida de Jesus as she sits across the table from her daughter inside Riquexo, the small Macanese restaurant that remarkably, despite her grand age, she runs to this day.

Patu is the name of De Jesus mother tongue, and she is one of its last surviving custodians. Known to those who speak it as Maquista, Patu is a creole language that developed in Malacca, Portugals main base in south-east Asia, during the first half of the 16th century, and made its way to Macau when the Portuguese settled there. It blends Portuguese with Cantonese and Malay, plus traces of other languages from stop-offs on the Portuguese trading route.

Patu developed to eventually become the language of Macaus indigenous Eurasian community: the Macanese. They first arose from intermarriages between Portuguese colonisers and the Chinese mostly Portuguese men marrying and starting families with Chinese women.


  • East meets west: Portuguese cannons at Guia Fortress; street and market scenes in Macau



However, as of the second quarter of the 19th century, the strengthening of public education in Portuguese and the socioeconomic advantages associated with the language led to the stigmatisation of Patu. It was shunned as broken Portuguese and became a language confined mostly to the home.

In 2009, Unesco classified Patu as a critically endangered language. As of the year 2000, there were estimated to be just 50 Patu speakers worldwide.

At school, I was taught Portuguese and told not to speak Patu, says De Jesus. If I spoke Patu at school they wouldnt understand, and so we had to speak Portuguese.

Elisabela Larrea, a part-time PhD student and author of a blog that introduces Patu dialect flashcards to English and Chinese readers, learned of the challenges her ancestors faced speaking the language. She is now part of a small community in Macau that wants to help preserve it as a medium of Macanese culture.

My mother once told me: Our parents gave up what was ours for a language that isnt; now we are left to grab back what truly represents our culture, our spirit. Patu is our language; it is ours, says Larrea. If you spoke in Patu, you were seen as uneducated. So I can understand why parents, in the past, forbade children to learn their own Macanese language.


But now, as Larrea puts it, the Macanese are more proud of who they are compared to years ago, when Macanese culture was not held in high regard. This sea change has inspired efforts to revive the language.

Miguel de Senna Fernandes is a local lawyer and president of the board of the Macanese Association; he is also one of the main faces of the Patu revival. Currently, he is director of Macaus Patu-language drama group, Doci Papiaam di Macau, which means sweet language of Macau. For over 20 years, they have been preserving the language through original plays performed in Patu by local actors. The groups work, presented with subtitles in English, Chinese and Portuguese, has become one of the most anticipated features in the annual Macau arts festival.


  • Clockwise from top: a bilingual shop sign; Portuguese pastel de nata on sale at Lord Stows Bakery; the ruins of St Pauls Cathedral



When no one really speaks Patu anymore, people ask me: why do we make all this fuss to write a play and engage so many people? says Fernandes. I say its like something that your dad left behind, like a jar or a notebook. You know that it belongs to one of your dearest, though you wont likely use it but you wont throw it away because you feel connected to it. The same is true of Patu. We dont speak it on a daily basis, its not useful anymore, but it links us to our ancestors and to a sense of our unique community.

Since Macau was handed back to China in 1999, that distinct community and unique Macanese culture is again fighting to hold on. Macau has swelled into the worlds most successful gambling hub, with its booming casino industryaccounting for around 80% of its economy. While it has helped the city financially, this growth has done little to reflect Macau or its local culture. Instead, a number of local citizens say the favoured strategy has been to copy and paste Las Vegas, casino resort by casino resort, with only one goal in mind: easy money.

I think the casinos definitely could have tried harder to represent something local in Macau something that will make tourists wonder and think about and discover Macau, says Fernandes. Out of nowhere you have an Eiffel tower in Macau, a Venetian [hotel] in Macau and now they are building a mini-London. From our perspective, as culturally aware citizens, this is all rubbish it says absolutely nothing about what Macau is.

Others, such as Larrea, feel that the work of promoting Macanese culture lies firmly with the community itself. I think the problem is that the Macanese dont come out enough its our responsibility, she says. We cant just say: why isnt the government doing more or why arent the casinos doing more to promote our culture? We have to do it ourselves.



  • Chinese workers overlook Macau harbour, circa 1910; a man lays out incense sticks out to dry in the sun in 1957

But one thing that brings consensus is that time is running out to save Patu and indeed the Macanese community overall. With it facing larger cultural forces than ever before, the likelihood of extinction is inevitable, some feel.

I think the Macanese community will die out, she says. Ninety-five percent of Macaus population is now Chinese. Even my husband is Chinese. So, if I have kids, I will try to pass on Macanese values to them, but I doubt that my grandchildren will even hear Patu. I think, three or four generations from now, the language will no longer be used.

Its not just Macaus local population that is majority Chinese. Of the citys 30.95 million tourists in 2016, around 28 million came from the Chinese mainland.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/10/macau-city-losing-language-china-portuguese-macanese